At his best, Jackie Chan is an unparalleled mixture of action and comedy. There’s nothing quite as thrilling as peering up Chan as he blends the speed and fury of Bruce Lee with the physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin while performing stunts so outlandish that would give Buster Keaton second thoughts. The latest Jackie Chan effort, Railroad Tigers, should be the action legend’s version of The General with its comedy and action hijinks set on a train during wartime. However, while the intentions are obviously there, Railroad Tigers doesn’t really share much in common with The General as the action is choppy in its editing accompanied by dodgy CGI and jokes that are so broad that they simply fall flat.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1941, Ma Yuan (Chan) leads a ragtag group of misfits that raids the railroads along the countryside and pilfer the supplies of the Japanese forces. This band of rogues aren’t soldiers but are compelled by a national duty to combat the Japanese led by Ken Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). Despite a few run-ins, Yamaguchi has been able to arrest Ma Yuan, always arriving a minute too late. One evening, Ma Yuan and his cohorts are shocked when a wounded soldier Daguo (Darren Wang) stumbles into their presence with the Japanese on his trail. They hide the bleeding man from his pursuers and soon learn of his unaccomplished mission. With his wounds hampering his ability to stealthy carry out the demolition of a bridge occupied by the Japanese, Ma Yuan and his associates take on the dangerous mission.
Director Ding Sheng reunites with Chan following the underwhelming to Police Story: Lockdown to equally underwhelming results. While Lockdown completely avoided even the slightest sense of humor and stuck with incomprehensible action, Railroad Tigers is much more a comedy than action epic and yet Sheng hasn’t shown much of a knack for directing either. The humor is extremely broad, sometimes misguidedly so, such as with a trite gag about seppuku. It’s a gag that could work if perhaps it was willing to go all the way with the violent nature of the joke, but it’s entirely toothless. The action within Railroad Tigers that Sheng has progressed some with visual clarity in capturing the shots, though the editing suggests that he hasn’t figured out how to match two of ‘em.
Even with the dodgy CGI, Railroad Tigers might’ve been able to be considered passable entertainment had it not contained one of the most overly convoluted, overstuffed scripts imaginable. There are so many characters – and every character no matter how minor gets a flashy comic book-styled title card that further pads the film’s bloated running time – and the set up for what should be a rather straight-forward plot is incredibly hard to follow. Sheng and co-writer He Keke can’t find a flow to the story and characters beats so the whole thing fails its story and characters in equal measure. It’s all so incredibly frustrating to behold because there are numerous ways that all these moving pieces could’ve been wrangled up into an entertaining whole.
As much as I love Jackie Chan and admire what he’s going for here, it still doesn’t allow me to forgive the slapdash construction of Railroad Tigers. This is a film that shovels a lot of coal and blows a lot more smoke but that doesn’t mean it’s comfy or worthwhile trip. The engine that drives this machine isn’t running smoothly, billowing with noxious smoke because it’s running on a hollow fuel that burns too quickly. Though it’s obvious what’s wrong with the engine of Railroad Tigers, I can’t tell if anyone’s driving the locomotive.